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Reflections: Memories of Ramadan in Palestine

Tuesday August 02, 2011 06:07:51 PM, Mike Odetalla

Beit Hanina had a drummer, charged with the pre-dawn task of awakening the village to sahoor, the light meal whose end marked the beginning of each day's fast.

The holy month of Ramadan and its fasting are once again upon us. Muslims will fast from sun up 'til sundown, abstaining from food, water and intimate relationships. Each year around this time, my memories are rekindled of Ramadan in our small village of Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem still without electricity, where people carried lanterns to light their way in the darkness as they went first to the mosque and then to visit friends and family.

Beit Hanina had a drummer, charged with the pre-dawn task of awakening the village to sahoor, the light meal whose end marked the beginning of each day's fast. Closing my eyes and thinking real hard, still brings back the sound of Beit Hanina's drummer banging away, and the delightful memories of joining the other children, carrying our decorated fanoosia lanterns with candles burning brightly inside them, as we ran along behind the drummer, singing, laughing and shouting to help awaken the sleeping adults and start them on sahoor and their new day.

How I admired the drummer. How I wanted his job and to share in his fun.
During Ramadan in 1979, when I made my first visit back to Palestine since the 1967 expulsion, my cousin and I, both 18 and living in the U.S., finally became the Ramadan drummers of Beit Hanina. The Israeli invasion of 1967 and the subsequent occupation made the drummers' job very high risk and today they are scarce. Ramadan drummers were often stopped, even beaten, and some have been killed by the Israeli occupying army.

By 1979, the village had not enjoyed a drummer in five years, so my cousin and I delighted in our job of walking through the village each morning banging away on large tin cans. It must have been a very humorous sight. The elderly were happy to hear us, while the younger people thought we were a great joke and made fun of the "bored Americans."

But everyone agreed that we had renewed some "life" that had been lost as we broke through the dark still nights of Ramadan. For me, however briefly, I was transported back to a happy childhood whose memories had never left me for a moment.

I still remember sitting by the family's transistor radio with my siblings listening to the special programs as we awaited the "cannon" to go off, signaling that it was time to break our fast. The "cannon" was a World War I-era English relic and merely made a loud bang, which was all that it was good for.

Ever since my own children were very small, I had regaled them with the many stories of my childhood in Palestine, enjoying the look of fascination on their faces as they implored me to tell them yet "another story of when you were young in Palestine."

As we made our way through the cemetery gates and up the hill so that we could read Al-Fatiha, which is the opening verse of the Quran, at her graveside, I noticed an old rusty cannon sitting on the top of the hill, virtually buried beneath the overgrown weeds. I decided to head up the hill and take a closer look. Much to my surprise, the cannon was an exact copy of the very same cannon that I had remembered as a youth. I called my children up the hill and showed them the cannon, surmising that the cannon was used to alert the residents of Jerusalem when to break their fast before the city fell under Zionist control.

During Ramadan, my mother would always invite friends and relatives to our home to break the fast with us. As Muslims, we are obligated to share breaking our fast with others, especially those less fortunate than us. It is considered a blessing to do so. It is something that we continue to do here in America as we invite friends and loved ones to share in our blessing on this holy month - the essence of which are a time of prayer, fasting and charity.

Some of the best memories that I carry with me are connected to the month of Ramadan in Palestine when I was a child. The closeness and feeling of "community" that I felt during those times is something that is almost beyond description. The sound of the drummer, the Muezzin call to prayer, the static emanating from the transistor radio, the "boom" of the cannon, the enticing aroma of the special foods that we only ate during Ramadan, the sight of families huddled together on a mat-covered floor around the evening meals, illuminated by the flickering light of a kerosene lantern, enjoying their meals, as humble as it may have been, in the company of family and loved ones.

These are my memories of Ramadan before the Israeli invasion and subsequent brutal and inhumane occupation, which has destroyed many families and communities and is now in the process of causing further havoc as Israel continues to erect its apartheid walls, checkpoints and roadblocks that have reduced many Palestinian villages and cities to nothing more than walled off ghettos and open-air prisons.

Unfortunately, these will constitute the next generation of Palestinian children's memories and experiences.

This past summer, I took my children to visit the grave of my grandmother, which is located on a hillside cemetery off of Salah Eddin Street in the Old City. The cemetery is actually located inside the boundaries of the Palestinian village of Lifta, which was ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian inhabitants, including my wife's family, by the Zionists in 1948. Many people, including my grandmother and her family members, are buried there, although now it is considered part of Jerusalem.



The writer recounts how Ramadan sparks memories of happy days in Palestine. It appeared in in September 2007.







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